“From a Lion to a Lamb”
AFTER robbing and terrorizing a store clerk, my brothers and I fled in our car. Little did I realize how that day—April 14, 1972—would show what a vicious “animal” I had become.
We pulled up near a police roadblock, when suddenly a hail of bullets ripped through our car. My brother Larry fell dead into my lap—his face blown off. I was covered with his blood. We sped off, but not far because the car caught on fire from the bullets. We jumped out in search of another car.
Nearby an old man was asleep in his car. I went berserk after seeing Larry die. So in a rage I grabbed the man and could not stop beating him. His skull was broken and he nearly died. After a high-speed auto chase by the police during which I was hit twice by gunfire, I blacked out and the car crashed.
“Get out of that car and throw your hands up!” were the next words I remembered. I was surrounded by police, yet this still did not fully stop me. A shotgun blast at short range opened a gaping wound in my stomach. Still I wrestled with a 270-pound policeman who finally flung me facedown into a puddle of muddy swamp water, sat on my back and taunted: “Nigger, you’re going to die!”
When I was later taken to the hospital I had but one desire: kill anything that moves! You see, after my little brother’s death, I did not see any purpose in living. I had no hope of ever becoming anything in life. For me, it was kill and be killed. No wonder two guards armed with shotguns sat by my hospital bed!
But what had created such a lionlike personality?
A Violent Childhood
Somebody was always fighting in our family. Dad was blind in one eye because of a fight. At times he would menace whole crowds by standing in the entrance doorway of a crowded dance hall shouting, “Nobody in and nobody out!” Not a soul would challenge him. They knew how bad he was! We followed dad’s violent example. One of my brothers almost cut off my foot with a large knife simply because I said, “I’m not going to move it!” Though my mom showed some tenderness, I thought, “With sixteen of us kids it must be awfully hard to show all of us love.”
Our family was poor, yet we had the necessities. But I wanted more. Soon I was burglarizing homes. This led to my being sent at age thirteen to a boys’ penal home, and to more violence. In one fight with a boy who tried to take advantage of me, I beat him till he dropped dazed and his face was covered with blood.
After my release from the boys’ home, my whole life was simply myself, and that’s all. I could not have cared less about the next person. The violent acts grew in intensity till that day in April 1972. When my brother Cy and I were finally hauled into court they ‘threw the book at us’—thirty years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana!
We arrived in prison as “two fighting fools.” Though I was small, weighing only 135 pounds, I had studied the martial arts and was into weight lifting. I could easily lift over twice my weight above my head! Word got around: “Don’t mess with Al, he’ll go all the way. He’ll kill you.”
‘Knocked Off My Feet’
Jehovah’s Witnesses were having weekly meetings in the prison. I went out of curiosity. “You don’t know what you are talking about!” I challenged one of the patient, well-spoken ministers. “How do you know it is like that?” As a convict I had learned to be skeptical. We were experts at using “sweet” speech to manipulate others. So the Witnesses’ inviting words did not mean much at first.
Then I felt something from them that I had never been shown in my whole life: genuine unselfish concern. First, they had to travel nearly an hour each way to get to the prison. They did this week after week without any material compensation. Also, they took time, even when they were not at the prison, to discuss our problems and questions with other congregational elders, and the following week they would give us this further information. They really wanted to help us. I could sense it.
The truth from the Bible that I was learning was both logical and practical. Little by little I applied it. Gradually I began to shed my lionlike old personality and to clothe myself with the new, which included compassion, kindness and lowliness of mind. I felt good inside. The Bible really worked! Then came the first assembly of Witnesses to be held inside the prison grounds.*—Colossians 3:9-12.
The free-flowing love of over 300 Witnesses just ‘knocked me off my feet!’ There was not a hint of prejudice because of our race or prison status. It is just as Jesus said, by this self-sacrificing love “all will know” his true disciples. Previously, I believed in religion—but in my way. My motto had always been, “Do unto others before they do unto you.” The Witnesses’ unselfish love deeply moved me. In fact, at this assembly—October 5, 1974—I was baptized.—John 13:34, 35.
Deepening My Relationship With God
The Witnesses taught me to dig into the Bible. I came to sense Jehovah’s tender interest in my life. His mercy just overwhelmed me. When I reflected on my past, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I kept “seeing” the terrified faces of those I had held up or beaten. But then to sense Jehovah’s complete forgiveness made me want to do all I could to please him. I also applied Romans 13:1 for the first time in my life and subjected myself to the “superior authorities” as represented by the prison officials.—Isaiah 1:18, 19.
To avoid reverting to my former personality I had to safeguard my thoughts and heart. I would force my mind to dwell on scriptures and Bible examples rather than on violent acts as before. I constantly strove—every day—to reach Jehovah’s standards in a fuller way. This attitude is crucial when you are locked up with thousands of thoroughly corrupted men. Sadly, some who became Witnesses while in Angola allowed the anxieties and pleasures of life to choke the message of truth sown in their hearts. A desire by some to get out of prison or to get married overshadowed spiritual things and these became sad examples. They even ruined the lives of Witnesses who married them without knowing their true spiritual condition.—Luke 8:11-15.
To avoid any such problem I busied myself in helping other prisoners to have the same hope and goal I now had. For several years I devoted over a hundred hours each month to this work. At one point I had twenty weekly Bible studies! Eight of these inmates became dedicated Witnesses. One of these, with a violent temper, had been jailed for killing his wife. How satisfying to see another “lion” become one of God’s “sheep”!
Life on the Outside
After serving nine years I was released in 1981. What a joy to be able to associate freely with the congregation! However, there were some who gave me the impression that because of my background I had to “prove” myself first. I knew that pleasing Jehovah was primary and that in time others would see my spiritual progress. Now my life faced another challenge—caring for a wife along with her five children.—Compare Acts 9:26.
I was fortunate to find a wife like Barbara who was wholly devoted to Jehovah. Her submissive support has been vital. To keep Jehovah foremost in our family, we study together every week—no matter what—and teach others the Bible as a family. Naturally, like any couple, we have our little differences. But when I get angry, I’ll walk into the next room, pick up a Bible or Bible study aid and start reading. In an hour or so we’ll make up.
After reading of how so many criminals return to their former ways, you wonder at times if a “lion” truly can become a “lamb.” Can the inviting picture described in Isaiah 11:6-9 of the lamb and the lion dwelling together in peace become a reality among God’s people today? Something happened that I feel provides a partial answer. I will let Barbara tell it.
“Al and I were returning from the preaching work. A man came out of a barroom, stared at us and shouted, ‘Look at that pretty woman! I just have to kiss her!’ Then he came over and started to put his arm around me,” explained Barbara. “I looked at Al and saw his jaw tighten up. But Al didn’t do a thing. I backed away from the man who then reached over and shook Al’s hand. He said to my husband, ‘I’m sorry, Mister, but with a beauty like that I just got carried away.’ He walked off. I’ll never forget what Al then said. ‘Baby, if he only knew what I could have done to him.’ I told Al, ‘Jehovah’s spirit was certainly with you.’”
Yes, really when I look back at the changes I’ve made it was not simply Al that did this. It was Jehovah’s spirit, his guidance and accurate knowledge from his Word that changed this “lion” into a “lamb” in the Good Shepherd’s flock.—Contributed.
For details, see Awake!, May 8, 1977.